The process of transforming a world where injustice persists into one where justice reigns is a long, slow, multi-faceted one. Much of it is invisible work, and progress is often two steps forward, one step back.
But occasionally, a project comes along that is both a symbolic and practical manifestation of change. The Echo Project in Laurens, South Carolina is one of those projects.
In 1996, the Redneck Shop and "World's Only Klan Museum" was opened in the historic Echo Theater in Laurens. The Echo had been a segregated theater during the Jim Crow era, and the town of Laurens itself was named for a wealthy slave-trader, Henry Laurens, so perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. But still.
With Confederate flags flying and a swastika hanging on the back wall, the Redneck Shop sold racist clothing, bumper stickers, KKK robes, and other paraphernalia to neo-Nazis for years.
In an odd series of events, the ownership of the building changed hands, which changed history. First it went from the former KKK Grand Wizard John Howard (who founded the shop) to his young protege Michael Burden (who lived in the building). During a temporary falling out with Howard and change of heart in 1997, Burden sold the deed to the building to Reverend David Kennedy, a Black civil rights activist whose church helped Burden out.
There was one caveat in the deed transfer—Howard would be allowed to keep running the Redneck Shop in the theater until he died.
Strange arrangement, right? Rev. Kennedy had held protests in front of the shop in the building he owned, but legally he couldn't close it. And this went on for years. In 2006, the theater even hosted the Aryan Nations' World Congress.
Finally, Rev. Kennedy took legal action to oust Howard and his racist shop and museum, and after a 4-year-long lawsuit, was successful. In May 2012, the Redneck Shop closed for good. (Kennedy's story has been turned into a feature film, "Burden," starring Forrest Whittaker, which was released last year.)
What is not depicted in the movie Burden was the regular KKK rallies that were held just a block and a 1/2 from my… https://t.co/BzMJVL6IeJ— AnnBlairKennedy DrPH (@AnnBlairKennedy DrPH)1604169533.0
Now the theater is being prepped to become a diversity center that will focus on racial harmony and healing, which will also house a museum on racial reconciliation.
Regan Freeman helped co-found the Echo Project with Rev. Kennedy and has raised $300,000 toward the building's renovation. He's in the process of collecting stories of Black residents around Laurens to help build the history of the area, but it was a woman's tweet that led him to a disturbing treasure trove of items that will add something tangible to that history.
According to ABC News, Freeman responded to a tweet from a woman who owns the land that John Howard had lived on. She had bins of items that had belonged to Howard, which she was offering to the Southern Poverty Law Center. After some negotiations, the woman sold them to Freeman. The bins include posters of Hitler, a "Klan Rally Instructions" manual, photo negatives of cross burnings, and offensive caricatures of Black people, and "business cards" KKK members would leave Black families as a form of intimidation. (The cards said that their visit had been a social one, and "don't make the next visit a business call.")
"This stuff isn't from 100 years ago. Some of it is maybe from the last decade or two," Freeman told ABC News. "I think it is important to see it and see how deep this hate goes so you can see why we need to fight so hard to change."
Freeman plans to go through the items with historians from the University of South Carolina to determine which of them should be preserved and which will best inform the storytelling Freeman plans to do at the theater.
Though it's appalling that the theater housed a shrine to hatred a dozen years into the 21st century, the Echo Project offers a ray of hope that transformation is possible.
"We're hoping The Echo Project will become a place where every race could be respected — a place where diversity is not only just talked about, but is celebrated through action," Kennedy told ABC News.
Beatuiful. Can't wait to see it, Reverend Kennedy.
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